Sunday, July 29, 2007

Pottering in Yangon (Rangoon)

A local I met said to me with a cynical look: “Myanmar people are very poor, but our country is rich”. The oil reserves lying offshore in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal are estimated by some to be Asia’s largest. China, of course, has its eyes on this resource feast.

Not everyone is poor in Myanmar

Random Sights in Yangon
Truckload full of wire coat hangers bent out of shape
Men sitting in pairs sipping tea on tiny plastic stools
Bags on long strings from the top of apartment blocks to pull up provisions
Manchester United posters everywhere
The occasional gleaming diplomatic Mercedes weaving between tuk tuks
Hardly any motorbikes about in Yangon
Lots of taxis, no such thing as a meter though
Women and children with yellow dye daubed on their faces
Men wearing “longyi”, sarong-like lower garments
An internet café called Virus Café
Girls all wearing their hair tied back in pony tails (Chucky would be happy here)
Tokyo Fried Chicken and Tokyo Donut, both in the colours and fonts of their more famous international equivalents!
Government’s self-proclaimed slogan: “Everyone’s friend but nobody’s ally”

Embassy Day

Tea or coffee, Sir?

Up reasonably early, and a taxi to the Chinese embassy. I submit my application, and pay the 75US$ for a same-day visa, double entry. Next I wander along towards the People’s Park. As Tony Wheeler points out, countries using the word Democratic in their full state name are invariably anything but, and the same goes for People’s – one just have to look at China and the absolute absence of universal suffrage in the People’s Republic.

The People’s Park is a large chaotic site to the west of the Shwe Dagon Paya.

The map

As I enter, someone springs out from nowhere and charges me 1,000 kyat to enter the park. Excuse me? Paying to walk in the People’s Park? I am highly dubious, but pay up, and mutter my way across, thinking I’ve been conned, until I see that there are people on the other side of the park charging too.

You can see why I was suspicious. Almost hand-written!

Fountain in the rain

The park is quite pleasant, and dotted around are young Burmese couples enjoying intimate time, sitting on benches or under trees.

Internet? Forget it!
So today I try to use the internet. After we give up trying to use my laptop in the café, I use their computer. Remember 9.6k dialup? Well actually I don’t really, I think we were up to about 28k when I first got online, but I have dialled into COLT over my GSM mobile, which is a 9.6k high-latency connection. Using the internet in Myanmar brings back those days. It’s torture. Firstly, assuming your page isn’t blocked by the proxies that all traffic goes through:

Surprised they let you bring the guidebook in to be honest!

Then you wait, and wait. Gmail, like hotmail, is blocked, but there is an easy way to get round this, which the cafes themselves show you – there are sites like which let you bypass the proxy, the downside being that all traffic is routed to the proxy site first, making things even more slow.

I give up, and head to Bagan Book Shop, a smallish store in the downtown area specialising in books about Burma.

Here I pick up Orwell’s Burmese Days, the most-recommended read for getting a feel about Burma. I’ve read about half of it as I write, but unfortunately I’m now in HK and have a copy of the latest Harry Potter, so Orwell will have to wait a few hours! It (Burmese Days) does seem like an excellent read though, set towards the end of British colonial rule in northern Burma, and describing the environment, the stifling heat, and local life for the expats there.

All buses here are old Japanese buses, usually JR

Shan Cuisine
After book shopping, I enjoy lunch at Lashio Lay Shan restaurant, a few blocks from my hotel in the downtown area. Incidentally, you'd never believe that Yangon is supposed to have a population of 5 million people. It's busy in the centre, but feels very small. Where are all these people?! Anyway, lunch is Shan state (North East Myanmar) cuisine washed down with a “New Star” coke (with a logo looking remarkably Pepsi-ish).

What’s on offer

It’s worth noting that in Myanmar, lunch is the main meal of the day, and most food is cooked for lunch, i.e. dinner in local restaurants will be reheated lunch, with all that the flies have deigned to add to it in the intervening hours. Anyway

Tea on tiny plastic seats is how to while away the time

Walking downtown
Walking back to my hotel, I pass the Strand Hotel, built in 1901 by the Armenian Sarkie Brothers (Raffles in Singapore etc). It’s gorgeous, but surprisingly small.

In other countries the car would be regarded as “classic”

Then the British embassy, where I pop in and enquire about reissuing my passport, to be given the usual British snooty treatment. Sods! And they wouldn’t let me take a photo of the outside – whose damn tax money do they thing funds their backsides anyway?!

Next building is the New Light of Myanmar newspaper office. This is the English language daily which is full of rubbish – example feature “Why on earth do foreigners want the release of Aung San Suu Kyi? Clearly an imperialist plot etc etc”. It’s good fun though, as it contains things like the national radio station daily schedule, including individual music tracks listed out with times! Also sometimes government invitations to tender for laughable items like “100 blank CDRs”.

Government rag

Those damn imperialists!

I grab a pearl iced tea from a vaguely modern coffee and cake place across from my hotel, then head in for a bit of air-con relief from the heat!

Chinatown and bars
Later, Stejn and I head out to the Chinatown area. There are some bars and clubs round here, but first we go looking for dinner. We sit down at one roadside place on the smallest plastic stools I’ve ever been near, but no one seems interested in serving us, so we move along to a small bar which appears to specialise in noodles. Comes with a peppery soup. When we come to pay, they seem to imply it’s 5,000 each, for a couple of bowls of noodles, which seems very expensive. We finally work out that they mean it’s 600 each, a more acceptable amount.



Next we head into Zero Zone Rock Restaurant, which is a rooftop place that LP recommend. We head up in the lift to the top floor, to be greeted by a corridor of girls standing on either side leading into the restaurant. Are they prostitutes? Have we wandered into a brothel? What is going on? We never worked it out! Perhaps they’re just girls who sit with you and eat or drink, keep you company, as it were. Or perhaps not. Anyway, it’s a very pleasant spot, with a cool breeze, and rock blasting out from the stage indoors. Myanmar Beer of course.

Yangon Sailing Club
Next we taxi over to the Yangon Boat Club to meet Stig, whom we had met the day before at Sandy’s. He had invited us over, telling us that there would be a good evening. We eventually found the place (it wasn’t the boat club, but the sailing club next door), and it’s very nice, but no Stig! Apparently he’s gone home! With no way of contacting him, we take a seat by the water and have a beer. It’s a lovely spot, right by the water.

We’re just about to call it a night when we get talking to a couple of girls, Thuzar and Lavender, who suggest going somewhere else. And so it starts..

Thuzar can’t roll her tongue

I have a cab at 5am the next morning, but we head to another hotel bar, for more live music and beer, and a spot of dancing, then to a serious club which is packed full of girls dancing to the techno and house music. Thazur decides she’ll come with me to Mandalay in an hour or two. Okay! There’s just enough time to pack back at the hotel before leaving for the airport. No sleep for the wicked!

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